The Cabinet Office unit established to root out and rebut misinformation published online has signed a £75,000 deal that will give officials access to a “listening tool” to monitor conversations on social-media platforms.
The Rapid Response Unit (RRU) was set up by the central department in 2018 with a remit to combat “false narratives” circulating on social media and other digital platforms. Its means of doing so include direct rebuttal online, as well as ensuring information from government or other reliable sources is promoted ahead of those publishing falsehoods and inaccuracies. It also works with social sites to remove content, where appropriate.
Its focus on misinformation – defined as the inadvertent sharing of falsities, largely by members of the public – differentiates its work from that of the DCMS-based Counter Disinformation Unit, the primary mission of which is to combat the targeted and malicious promotion of false information for political, ideological, or criminal reasons.
To help support its work, the RRU recently signed a one-year contract with software firm Cision. The company, via its partnership with specialist Brandwatch, will provide officials at the government unit with a platform that gives them “the ability to conduct online and social listening and monitoring”.
According to Cision’s website, the Brandwatch-powered social listening tool allows its customers to “tap into conversations from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, and hundreds of online forums and review sites”.
Newly published procurement information reveals that the RRU will be provided with “access to at least 30 [ongoing] queries, unlimited ad hoc searches, unlimited users and unlimited dashboards”. This will help “support monitoring services for [other] departments and teams within Cabinet Office”.
The deal, which will be worth £75,600 to the Chicago-headquartered firm, came into effect on 5 November.
In addition to standard procurement conditions, commercial documents reveal that the government was required to formally agree to terms of service for both YouTube and Twitter – including dedicated “pass-through terms” in the latter case.
The Cabinet Office has thus contractually committed that it: “will not use Twitter content or display, distribute or otherwise make available Twitter content to any person or entity that you reasonably believe will use the content: in any manner that would have the potential to be inconsistent with Twitter’s users’ reasonable expectations of privacy; to investigate, track or surveil Twitter’s users or their content, or to obtain information on Twitter users or their content in a manner that would require a subpoena, court order, or other valid legal process; to conduct analyses or research on Twitter content that isolates a group of individuals or any single individual for any unlawful or discriminatory purposes; to target, segment, or profile any individual user based on health, negative financial status or condition, political affiliation or beliefs, sex life or sexual orientation, trade union membership, data relating to any alleged or actual commission of a crime, or any other sensitive categories of personal information prohibited by law; [or] to violate the [United Nations] Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
After being launched with some fanfare in early 2018, few public pronouncements have since been made about the RRU’s work – although the information and commentary that has been published still represents far more than that which has been made available about the Counter Disinformation Unit.
A recent six-month quest by CSW sister title PublicTechnology to find out even basic details about the CDU – such as how many staff it employs, or outline detail on the subject of disinformation it deals with – was rebuffed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
DCMS indicated that it was withholding the information on the basis of the need to protect government’s “relationship with social media platforms”, as well as a desire to “preserve a ‘safe space' around ministers and government officials”.
Sam Trendall is editor of CSW sister title PublicTechnology, where this story first appeared